The Patriots play the Cowboys this weekend in the marquee afternoon slot, getting the full Fox national-coverage, Buck-and-Aikman treatment. The only opposing game on the schedule: the Thursday-night-special of Jacksonville at Tennessee, as close to a total broadcast surrender as you can get.
Everybody who’s not literally on the field for Jags-Titans is going to be watching Cowboys-Pats.
And yet, you can’t help but think this game should be so much bigger. This game ought to be LeBron-MJ, Alabama-Clemson and Scorsese-Marvel all wrapped in one, a rivalry where everyone’s got a loud opinion. But Cowboys-Patriots falls into the category of “fun every-four-years matchup,” not “Super Bowl blood feud.”
That’s a damn shame because the NFL needs good honest rivalries — ones based on trash talk, bad takes and weird costumes, not bodily assault and accusations of racism — now more than ever. Dallas-New England could have been the best of them all.
Imagine Dallas throwing around New England in the Super Bowl with outright whuppings, not just the miracle victories of the New York Giants. Imagine Cowboys fans and Patriots fans hammering each other in a cacophony of sweat, rage, body spray and bad accents, bandwagons colliding like 18-wheelers on an interstate. Oh, what could have been.
Bandwagons going separate directions
Think of the NFL’s greatest rivalries, and an outsized number of them run through Dallas: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the New York Giants, San Francisco and Washington could all consider Dallas their greatest, or at least ancestral, rival. Meanwhile, nobody really considers the Patriots a rival, for the main reason that the Patriots obliterate anyone who dares to challenge them. The “rivalry” between the Patriots and the AFC East is the “rivalry” between a dog and a steak.
Both teams have bandwagons the size of battleships; an Emory University study this past summer ranked the Cowboys and Patriots as the strongest fan bases in the league, the same as every year it has done the study. You’ll see Romo and Brady jerseys all over the NFL; sure, those jerseys often share closet space with Duke, Lakers and Yankees jerseys, but even so: these two teams dominate the sports landscape.
But the Cowboys and Patriots exist in almost completely separate orbits. In the Jerry Jones-Robert Kraft era, they’ve met only six times, four of those in the 2000s. Dallas has a 1-5 record against New England in that span; the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996 … nearly a quarter of a century. That’s not anything even close to a rivalry.
The Cowboys are at fault
It’s obvious where the blame lies here. The Cowboys haven’t held up their end of the deal in two decades, not since the Patriots ascended to the mountaintop. Dallas was the last real dynasty before the Patriots stepped up, but by the time the Brady-Belichick Death Star was fully operational, the Cowboys of Aikman-Smith-Irvin were nothing more than banners and memories.
Jerry Jones is a masterful owner, one of the architects of the NFL’s ascendant world-conquering strategy, for better and worse. But as a general manager and team builder, well … he’s a masterful owner. Ego clashes — Jimmy Johnson would have won three more Super Bowls with Dallas, guaranteed, had he not been forced out — poor draft picks and sloppy roster construction have all combined to keep Dallas all but irrelevant.
Since the Patriots began their run in 2001, the Cowboys have reached the playoffs seven times and have won exactly three games … the same number the Patriots won last year alone. Since the mid-’90s, the Cowboys haven’t reached the NFC championship game even once.
Dallas still draws the big ratings
And yet, the Cowboys remain a huge draw. There’s a reason why you’ll see Dallas and New England on prime time all year long: According to Fox, between the two of them, the Patriots and Cowboys account for the 10 most-watched regular-season games of this century.
Not that you should ever worry about what makes broadcast executives happy, but a Cowboys-Patriots Super Bowl would likely break ratings records. Who wouldn’t want to see the final showdown between the Evil Empire and America’s Team?
Man, think of the storylines we’d see if these two teams met in the biggest game of the year. This week gave us a tiny preview:
Tom Brady said he hasn’t liked the Cowboys “since coming out of the womb,” which might be the first Brady opinion that even non-Patriots fans can endorse. Of course, being Brady, he slathered a layer of bland icing over that mildly spicy quote — “I've got a lot of respect for those guys. They've had a great winning organization, and a lot of great players in their history” — but hey, you take what you can get out of Captain Cliché.
Jerry Jones revealed this week that Bill Belichick approached him about a job with the Cowboys after getting fired from Cleveland. In true Belichickian fashion, he bumped into Jones in a ski rental line and told Jerry to keep him in mind. “I’ve thought about that many times,” Jones noted. Of course, there’s no way on earth Belichick would have had this kind of success under the meddlesome Jones, but it’s a fascinating what-if nonetheless.
That doesn’t even count the football X’s and O’s here: Is New England’s once-vaunted defense up to the challenge of a suddenly surging Dak Prescott/Ezekiel Elliott offense? Can Dallas exploit an increasingly vulnerable Tom Brady? Will there be more TV shots of Jones or Kraft in the owners’ boxes?
Even as the Patriots’ dynasty nears its (theoretical) end, there’s still an outside chance we could get the Super Bowl matchup we’ve deserved all along. Dallas will need to step up, and this weekend could be the beginning of that. BetMGM has the Cowboys as 6.5-point underdogs; if Dallas can overcome that spread and win, then all of a sudden the possibilities open wide. There’s nothing like a good rivalry to add an extra jolt to the Super Bowl … and if a vast swath of America hates both teams, hey, so much the better.
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